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Filled with the Breath of God

A Homily from Acts 2:2-21

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

May 19, 2002 (Day of Pentecost)

Seven weeks and a day after Passover, a small remnant of Jesus’ followers gathered for the Festival of Weeks. In a time before supermarkets and greenhouses, this feast day also called Pentecost celebrated the first harvest of the year. Winter was over, and the food was fresh.

It was a day of celebration in a town fair atmosphere that was perhaps one of the oldest traditions of the children of Abraham. Unlike the other festivals, Pentecost had no religious precedent. It did not commemorate a particular act of God in the history of Israel. Pentecost was a brief pause, before the pace of the planting and harvesting became too great, to thank God for the hoped for bounty that was to come.

It was also a chance to say that, after the stale breads of winter, fresh food tasted very, very good – and they were grateful. So everyone gathered for the party, in a gathering that – at its heart – wasn’t that different from this one.

What do we expect when we come here? I know what we’re supposed to say that we expect, but what do we really expect? Visiting with people we care about? Certainly. Patrick providing something good to eat in the Narthex? Unquestionably. A chance to express our feelings to God – be they gratitude, repentance, anger, doubt? Hopefully. Perhaps we even hope for a little spiritual insight.

Christians have been gathering with those things in mind for roughly two thousand years, and God’s people did the same for thousands of years before that. For a few faithful followers of Jesus, however, this Pentecost would be different.

With the memory of Jesus’ ascension fresh in their minds, the disciples of Jesus were doing just what he had told them to do: they were waiting. Luke, the author of Acts and the gospel that bears his name, tells us that around a hundred men and women had gathered in Jerusalem dedicating themselves to prayer. They chose to celebrate Pentecost together.

Expecting, perhaps, no more than we expect when we come here, the tiny, faithful following of Jesus gathered for a respite from their prayer and waiting. That waiting came swiftly and suddenly to an end when Jesus’ promised “comforter” arrived in a thunderous roar accompanied by bright flames that separated and came to rest upon the gathered disciples. It was the Spirit of God, and its presence transformed the celebration of the coming harvest into the birthday of the Christian Church.

The first act of the presence of God within the newborn Church is a miracle never seen before or since. Early in Genesis we learned that humanity’s arrogance had forced us into divisions so deep that we could not even find a common language. At Pentecost the merciful spirit of God steps in and bridges that gap. Jesus’ disciples find that they can speak in other languages, and be understood by the other festival-goers. Speaking as a former foreign language teacher, I can assure you that for some people, this is indeed beyond miraculous.

Luke tells us that present at the spring fair were faithful believers from all of the nations under heaven, and that – coming to hear what the noise was – they were astonished to learn that these rustic paupers from the backwoods of Galilee were speaking their native tongues. In case we miss his point, Luke goes on to provide a staggering list of some of the far and distant lands represented among the crowd.

Yet no one is left out, something that Luke takes great pains to point out throughout his gospel and Acts. The God of our ancestors, the giver of the Spirit, is not a God of partial miracles. At the founding of our faith, every person present heard the good news of Jesus Christ.

It’s an amazing miracle, and it’s lack of repetition has been a source of no small amount of controversy among later generations of Christians. If the mighty Spirit of God did this once, why never again? People have come up with all sorts of answers – but they ultimately come to the same conclusion, because God did not need to.

I’m not really sure what that means. Certainly, it would seem to make many things much easier if God would give this gift to all worshipping congregations. Of course, a God who did things the easy way probably would have found a way around the crucifixion. Imagine, though, being able to truly understand each other when we gather together as a community of faith, as a Church. Not a little “c” church, mind you – as the Church.

Of course, even speaking the same language, when we gather in groups of more than two or sometimes even more than one, we often cannot truly hear each other. Perhaps that’s why the miracle of Pentecost has never been repeated. Language is no longer a barrier to sharing the gospel. Instead, we’ve committed the sin of Babel all over again, but this time in a thousand other ways.

There are all sorts of barriers that we can’t hear each other through. We baptists are fond of doctrinal ones. But there are others. All the usual culprits – wealth & poverty, sex, sexual orientation, race – our awareness of their divisiveness makes their danger no less real.

Yet the miracle of Pentecost was that – through the Divine Presence – there were no barriers to the sharing of the gospel. Those of us who wish to recreate that miraculous experience for ourselves would do well to seek – not to re-summon the flames but to rebuild relationships; not to rekindle the fervor but to restore community.

It’s a daunting task, and even at Pentecost there were those who – even though they could hear – refused to understand. Luke tells us that some people in the crowd, hearing the disciples speaking in so many languages, assumed they were drunk. It’s an understandable assumption, since – like every other U.S. tourist to Mexico – I’m fairly certain that a couple of margaritas greatly improves the fluency of my Spanish.

But there’s more to it than that. The natural response of a human being to the miraculous is to rationalize it, to try to make “sense” of it. Our souls are mightily handicapped by these fragile bodies, and when the truth is something beyond what these frail vessels can contain we dilute it and warp it until it fits. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we were to take the other route – if we were stretch ourselves until we could take it all in we would burst.

And as it is with us so was it with some of those present at Pentecost. For whatever reason, it was too much for them to believe, so against all evidence they took the “rational” explanation. It’s one of the secrets of discrediting the supernatural – in a world of mystery it takes as much self-deception to not believe as it does faith to believe.

Yet Peter the persistent does not give up hope. Standing up above them Peter shouts, “Don’t deceive yourselves. We are not drunk. It’s only nine o’clock in the morning. We are doing just what the prophet Joel said we would do. We are fulfilling the prophecy of the coming of the Realm of God.”

Peter then goes on to quote the second chapter of Joel. It’s one of the most amazingly inclusive passages in all of Scripture. Joel tells us that the day would come when the Spirit of God would be open to everyone. Everyone!

After lifetimes of separation from God, of hearing God’s will in vague and sporadic messages from prophets, of separation from the presence of God behind a veil in the Temple; as Joel predicted God had become real, tangible, present to any who would open themselves up to the Spirit of God.

After generations in the Winter of separation from God, the children of God enter into Spring at Pentecost. It is our first taste of the abundant, merciful love of God – and it is only a hint of the amazing harvest to come.

And it is available to all who seek it. Joel says, “your sons and your daughters will prophecy, the young will see visions and the old will dreams and the spirit of God will be poured out even on slaves, male and female alike.”

The Spirit of God does not see any of the boundaries we create for ourselves. God only sees children, hungry, thirsty children lonely for the comfort of our Creator. So, as God breathed life into the bodies of humanity in the Garden, at Pentecost God breathes life into the soul of the Church – filling us with the unquenchable Spirit of hope and life.

That is our heritage as Christians. That moment two thousand years ago when the presence of God was so tangible that it could be heard for miles around, that people could feel it tugging at their hair and whistling past their ears. When the presence of God was so irresistible that women and men from all walks of life were drawn into an unbreakable community that changed the world.

Imagine expecting that when we came to church on a Sunday morning. Imagine expecting the nearly terrifying, loud, unmistakable presence of God. There are some who do, and they are unsurprisingly called “Pentecostals.” They come together hoping, even expecting, to be filled with the very breath of God – as our ancestors in the faith were at that harvest festival.

Are they any more or less successful than those of us whose expectations are a little lower? There really isn’t an empirical standard to judge. My guess is that they probably are not, because the heart of the miracle of Pentecost was not the experience of the presence of God, it was the result.

In a way that we can hardly comprehend, individuals were turned into a community. In the absence of the physical presence of Jesus, people with different gifts and different weaknesses formed into the singular Body of Christ. We recreate that miracle in smaller ways now and again, usually in times of crisis; and it would seem that if there were any real litmus test for the presence that would be it. The fingerprint of the Holy Spirit is seeing the pieces of broken lives fused into the miraculous reality of Christ.

By this standard, each of the fragmented sects of Christianity have succeeded a little and failed a lot. For each wall we destroy, we find an excuse to build another. For each miracle we pray for, we ignore another that is present right before our eyes.

No particular denomination is more or less guilty of this. Yet there is a lesson we can learn from those groups that seek to recapture the reality of Pentecost. They expect the miraculous. They expect the presence of God, and they expect to be changed.

One of the messages of Pentecost is that God is a keeper of promises. It may take generations, even millennia, but God always follows through. Today we commemorate the astonishing fulfillment of God’s greatest promise – to create a way to draw back in every prodigal child, a way for us to free ourselves from the limits of our too-human weaknesses and experience the creative, transforming power of God.

God always follows through, often in very surprising ways. Of all of the things in the Bible that are beyond our understanding – this is one of the truths we can be sure of. God promised that knowledge would bring death – and it did. God promised that there would be a way to restore our broken world, and God provided the way in the sacrifice of Jesus. God promised that death would not be the end – and raised Jesus from the dead. God promised that we would never be alone – and the Holy Spirit came and changed everything – one disciple at a time.

What can we expect when we gather and call upon the presence of Almighty God? That God is here. That God is working, perhaps more subtly than at the spring fair in Jerusalem, but working nonetheless. That we will be changed, and that the world will in turn be changed by us.

We are the children of God, heirs to what God promised to Abraham and to the disciples. Joel says, “Anyone…anyone who calls upon the name of the LORD will be saved.” That anyone includes us. Expect it. Count on it. By the mercy of Jesus, we are filled with the very breath of God.

We really have no choice then but to do as the disciples did that day…share. It would seem that the Spirit of God is contagious. Having been touched by the merciful forgiveness of a loving God, how can we do anything else but offer the same gift to those around us.

The results may not come as obviously as tongues of flame or hurricanes; but if we allow ourselves to be filled with the very breath of God, then we too will breath life into those around us.

In the name of God who is Mighty Creator, Sacrificed Redeemer, and Holy Spirit. Amen.